Justice League Review
By James Murphy
The Pitch: A Team of Heroes must save Earth from an alien super-being.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: Joss Whedon
2 hrs /12A/PG-13/Action/adventure/comic book/Warner Bros
(nb some sorta spoilers are involved)
Justice League is in trouble. Real trouble. A failure to reach the magic $100 million weekend target is a fairly terminal mark of death on a franchise that had barely begun to fly. But don’t judge a movie on its box office alone. And avoid the mistake of filtering every comic book movie’s quality through the Marvel market ethos comparison.
Think instead: would any other type of film be deemed a failure for failing the $100 million test? No. It’s a good figure. Think also: did we even know what a ‘Marvel’ movie was a decade ago? No. So now: simply imagine you see Justice League on its own terms.
Is this a fun, functional, entertaining movie? Does it have charm and heart and moments of magic: Yes, absolutely. So this film, despite being a disappointment, (both critically and commercially) and something of a curate’s egg, is, for all its flaws, an adequate piece of cinematic entertainment. It might not work but the critical distinction is that you WANT this to work. Trust me. There is enough good will on show that you can simply embrace the drawbacks and endure them.
The undercurrent of good will invested in the film shines through. So: you might look back and wish this had been a bigger box office hit, when it’s sat gathering dust on a shelf in years from now, under the inevitable ‘led to another reboot’ cinematic sub division. If you do go and see it, now? What are the assets and liabilities, at first glance?
The cast is a jewel in the crown. Ben Affleck is a definitive Batman. And he now tempers that with a more approachable yet still world weary and battle-scarred Bruce Wayne. Looks so cool in all his costumes (inc one nod to Han Solo’s gear from Empire Strikes Back).
Offscreen: one can see that Affleck is enduring the inevitable collapse of this iteration of the character /franchise. Terrible shame, as one can only dream of quite how great his writing and directing on a Batman movie would have been. I hope he’s ok. Seriously. He’s being treated with contempt by a bloodthirsty media and that is a sad thing to witness.
Henry Cavill is a sublime Superman. Ok fine there is some debate about the ‘moustache’ problem. But so what? Yes. He had a ‘tache for the new Mission: Impossible. He was called back for re-shoots on Justice League so they CGI’d out the whiskers. It’s a bad special effect. But the actor is great in the part; earnest yet not overly so, via the right measure of emboldened ass kicking.
Strong, sensitive, funny in places and competent and convincing in the action scenes: Cavill is a star. There is a reason why he was almost James Bond and could be again. I would also add that, offscreen: this is a model citizen. In an era whereby those in the public eye are under a new and intense scrutiny, I can hand on heart predict Cavill’s being beyond reproach. Articulate, polished, gentlemanly and a beloved supporter of the Armed Forces, this is a truly super man.
Gal Gadot is a Goddess. No..I mean she PLAYS a Goddess. No. I mean..she IS a Goddess. Incredible. This is dedicated Athlete, action heroine, actress. It’s a work of beautiful art seeing Gal move in harmony with the score and visuals. As though she were some mythological manifestation made real on film. Btw: her immaculate physique is in part a product of a military fitness regime, which includes those awful bear crawls (trust me, the girl suffers for her art!). Roll on Wonder Woman 2.
There are some great laughs to be had. A few bittersweet cries, too. Like I say: the film has heart and warmth and soul. It is, for the most part, visually stunning and epic in scale, scope and style. This is. to me, one of the clearest and cleverest representations of comic book panels on film. The format avoids the mistakes of certain other movies in the genre that, though great in their way, went too far with literal recreations of comic book split screens or primary colours (see Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy / Ang Lee’s Hulk).
Instead, a fidelity to the essence of the familiar imagery is used, whilst filtered through new visions, with nods to other iterations from graphic novels to animated series. One shot in particular is distinct in that, for a change, the word ‘iconic’ is earned: a set of icons, are lined up, against a beautiful panoramic and cinematic landscape, echoing comic book counterparts.
The integration of the Batman lore (Commissioner Gordon, Gotham, Bat Signals) is especially effective. There are two wonderful post-credit sequences. Equally, the movie manages to capture and honour the spirit of the Richard Donner Superman films, without copying them slavishly (a trick that Bryan Singer tried and failed to pull off in 2006’s Superman Returns). It’s a delicate art, with occasional but distinct and effective shorthand cues, fused to a reverence for character and motif with amped up action and fun to match: bravo, Zack Snyder!
So far, so super. So why is the film failing? Well, for all of the assets I cited (which are considerable), there are liabilities. With bells attached. The nature of plot, threat level, stakes and therefore the inevitable resolution are a rushed and muddled mess.
For every Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman there is a Cyborg /Aquaman (they are fine but could, theoretically, be absent and the film would be just as good if not better). There is a kind of charisma and energy deficit at the movie’s core that could in and of itself have served as the mcguffin for the heroes to locate.
Much has been made of the two hour run time. Ok. But this feels longer. A.LOT.LONGER. Things drag. Badly. There are a few scenes included that could /should have been excised in favour of more pertinent story /character development.
That’s not to say any of it is ‘bad’ but some of this just feels irrelevant. Especially when one simply has not had the Marvel styled self contained movies before the shared universe counterparts. So I simply don’t care about Cyborg yet or his Dad; I don’t laugh when Aquaman flirts with Wonder Woman. I don’t give two hoots when Amber Heard turns up underwater to fight CGI Ciaran Hinds‘ baddie of the week. I could do. In time. But you either build that up before the film or you do an ace job of delivering it instantly and flawlessly. This film does neither.
It’s an emotional stalemate. Leaving neither love nor hate but a perpetual ‘meh’ and super-heroics by nature must transcend the ‘meh’ or they get wiped out, as appears to be happening, with this ‘DCU’ brand, at this weekend’s box office.
The score of a film frequently gives clues to its quality and success. Well, here, Danny Elfman gives us some real treats: notably the return of his own Batman march from the Tim Burton films, as well as new orchestration of some other old favourites.
Score here is good as always from Elfman. And he was right, incidentally about the difference between his and Hans Zimmer’s take on the music and Zimmer would agree, in so far as Hans ‘ work on the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy deliberately omits a ‘theme’, whilst being distinctive and excellent, whereas Danny’s work on the Burton films was driven BY a central march. But alas: even the old glories of the Elfman Batman march in Justice League are somewhat drowned and numbed by loud action noises that lack sufficient onscreen atmospheric signatures to match.
Much has been made of the fact that Joss Whedon stepped in from Zack Snyder to finish post production and edits /do some cosmetic rewrites. Whedon gets a writer credit; Snyder remains Director. Zack tragically lost a daughter so had to step down. But his visual markers are clear: red skies, animation fused to live action, epic scope and scale.
Whedon’s additions can be discerned. There are some groovy dialogue beats, meta-textual in jokes, reverent riffing on comic book mythologies, Russian families in firing lines, house rebuilding as motif for character and so on. But, to reference Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (which Whedon adapted once for some reason)..’he is neither sick nor sad nor merry nor well but something of that jealous complexion‘. Whedon has not quite managed to bring that Marvel magic to this DC product.
One can detect Whedon’s attempts to save the sinking ship. Sadly his contributions neither blend seamlessly to Snyder’s groundwork nor inject some spark of previously missing purposeful energy. To be fair, Joss was a late addition and tasked with simply finishing rather than totally remaking the film.
But one cannot help wonder whether in fact, his Avengers masterpiece of 2012 was a product more of the Tony Stark/Downey Jr charisma and goodwill from the other heroes’ movies preceding it than it was Whedon’s own specific visionary talent. Remember: Age of Ultron was, in retrospect, a competent yet unremarkable film and in same manner, so it is with his Justice League.
Unremarkable. Yep. That, in a word, sums up Justice League. It is NOT awful so is not remarkably bad. But its lulls in pace, lack of clarity in purpose or story and stakes and genuine absence of an energetic enthused tone ensure that one misses nothing by missing this movie. And for that reason, alas, it has written its own death warrant both in critical and commercial terms.
At the same time however, there ARE many charming ASPECTS here and a spirit of genuine hard work, good will and family friendly, moral entertainment that stresses the value of team work and salvation and hope. In today’s dark times, we need those qualities more than ever. So I pray that this film’s failure is NOT the end of this iteration of DC comics on film but simply a final stumbling block slow start in an era that could still take flight.
They have a GREAT Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman here, for starters. To salvage things: perhaps just do a Marvel in reverse? Marvel’s initial stand-alones were NOT all billion dollar behemoths until they were fused through a shared universe Avengers movie.
And so, here: perhaps if DC give us some more self contained solo super-hero epics, they can retrieve the genuine progress made and build on the goodwill, before even thinking about revisiting ensemble pieces. No precipitous reboots necessary!
B-/C+ : unremarkable but likable. Missable and yet worth not missing. Curate’s Egg.